Every now and then, you walk into a restaurant and know you’re in for an incredible experience. It could be the drop-dead view, or the spot-on elegance in every detail. Or perhaps it’s the cozy bar where a crowd of regulars swaps stories as a guitar player strums away. Sometimes you’re not sure what it is—that indefinable but unmistakable je ne sais quoi that has seduced lovers since time began.
Sarasota has more than its share of restaurants that can spark a lifetime love affair. From an Old Florida fish house to a bayfront landmark, here are seven of our most beloved.
A true temple of gastronomy, Longboat Key’s Maison Blanche embodies the vision of perfectionist chef Jose Martinez, a veteran of restaurants in Paris and the South of France. His experience shows in his flawless classic technique, often used in the service of ingredients that take full advantage of North American fields and fisheries. You can wallow in the luxury of five ounces of Osetra caviar or ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms in foie gras sauce, but you also can dine more simply but no less divinely on swordfish crusted in black pepper and sesame seeds with soy sauce. One of the most astonishing dishes we’ve ever tasted anywhere was the chef’s roast suckling pig, a delicate slab of incredibly tender pork under a melt-in-your-mouth crust of crisp skin, served over Brussels sprouts that even I, a confirmed sprout hater, found delicious. Where did he find those sprouts and exactly what magic did he work on them?
The setting for enjoying Martinez’s artful bounty is an ethereal white-on-white dining room that is as serene as a world-class spa. The wine list is lovely, the service polished and professional, and the mood as far from everyday cares as anyone could hope.
2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
Reservations recommended: (941) 383-8088
Hours: dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Entrées: $20 to $45
On Siesta, the next key south, perennial favorite Ophelia’s commands a view of unspoiled Little Sarasota Bay that rivals Martinez’s understated design fantasy for serenity and charm. Dine early, on the waterside deck or from a dining room with big windows, to watch dolphins drive mullet out of the mangrove shallows for their own suppers and to see the eastern sky morph through a palette of tropical ice cream colors at sunset.
The creative menu at Ophelia’s is constantly in flux, catering not only to the seasons and whatever is fresh from local waters but also to chef Daniel Olson’s whim. Gulf of Mexico hog snapper with cracked pepper and Florida honey, fresh rock shrimp in garlic sauce, ahi tuna ceviche with watermelon and Key lime, braised osso bucco with Portobello mushrooms and foie gras risotto, and Bandera quail stuffed with oysters and herbs comprise but a sampling of what might await on any given evening.
Among specials that come and go is the chef’s Savor Siesta Key Menu, a three-course prix fixe sampler that’s a bargain at $25. You might start with fresh and tender escargots with garlic and sweet basil set off by a white truffle herb crumb (or five other options) and move on to jerked pork tenderloin with fried plantains and creamy curried apples (or four other choices) and finish up with ice cream. Nice.
9105 Midnight Pass Road., Siesta Key
Reservations recommended: (941) 349-2212
Hours: dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily, brunch 11a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Entrées: $25 to $35
The only thing Mar Vista on Longboat shares with Ophelia’s is a great view, from waterside tables under shade trees or from a covered deck, of one of the prettiest little coves on Sarasota Bay. My favorite meal here is a long and laid-back lunch after a morning out on the salt. Tie up at this casual restaurant’s dock at Intracoastal Mile Marker 39 and kick off your boat shoes under your alfresco table. A rum and tonic goes down easy as you choose between the big burger or the grouper and try to decide whether Buffalo wings or a dozen (or two) of chilled peel-and-eat shrimp for the table is in order.
Inside the main building, which survived the hurricane of 1921, locals gather at the bar and diners from all over shelter from infrequent squally weather. And you’re invited to staple an autographed dollar bill to the wall or ceiling, where it will join hundreds of others that have accrued over the years.
760 Broadway St., Longboat Key
Information: (941) 383-2391
Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m., daily
Dinner entrées: $15 to $35
Across the bridge to Anna Maria and up island to Holmes Beach is the way to raconteur and showman Sean Murphy’s Beach Bistro, an intimate surfside restaurant so beloved of locals and visitors alike that you’ve probably already heard about it from 10 friends. The owner’s style is extravagantly cordial, yielding a lush dining room in which a rose for the lady seems perfectly in order. The setting purrs, it’s true, but it would all be for naught if Murphy’s team of chefs didn’t deliver the goods. Not to worry: The food is even better than the vibe.
We’ll let two standout entrées, both with legions of devotees, stand for the whole. The first is named “Bouillabaisse, Famous,” a dish that serves up fresh Nova Scotia lobster tail, big shrimp, day’s catch fish and shellfish in “killer broth” and offers it in two sizes: generous at $46 and bountiful (he’s not kidding) at $56. Sells like hotcakes on a cold rainy day.
The second, likewise quirkily named and likewise a hot seller, is called “Food Heaven.” It teams Colorado lamb, Maine lobster and Hudson Valley foie gras and serves the trio over brioche bread pudding with port demi-glace on the side and a thimbleful of sweet Essensia wine for a kicker. The “smaller” plate is $52 and the entrée portion $68. (We’re making a point of prices in this case only because at first glance they are eye-popping. But then the food arrives.)
6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach
Reservations recommended: (941) 778-6444
5 to 10 p.m. daily
Entrées: $15 to $65
In downtown Sarasota, at the bay end of Main Street, stands Marina Jack, a bona fide local institution comprised not only of its signature drop-dead-gorgeous-view dining room but also of a world-class marina with “room” service, a cozy indoor bar and a prime see-and-be-seen open-air bar at dock level. It’s that recently remodeled glass-walled dining room, though, that merits icon status, having for decades been first stop for Sarasota hosts showing visitors the town.
The menu has gained depth and breadth over the years, and its wine list is now something to crow about, but the biggest seller still is Captain Jack’s Fried Seafood Platter, which rounds up shrimp, scallops, grouper “nuggets” and crab cakes and serves them without fuss.
Other choices here include market fish, a quartet of pastas and straight-ahead steaks and lobster. My favorite section comes under the heading “appetizers,” where the kitchen gets to stretch on small plates like red curry mussels, caramelized diver scallops with goat cheese and applewood bacon grits, and—the best—black-and-blue tuna, which serves flash-blackened, very rare yellowfin with a Dijon mustard soy sauce for dipping.
2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota
Reservations recommended: (941) 365-4232
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2: p.m. upstairs (4 p.m. downstairs); dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily, brunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Dinner entrées: $25 to $45
Further east lies the Towles Court Arts District, a charming assemblage of vintage homes now housing studios, galleries and, anchoring the district’s northwest corner, a newish restaurant that has Sarasota locavores rejoicing. Indigenous is housed in a romantic little renovated cottage with a broad front porch and brick patio where candlelit tables beckon at the dinner hour.
Indigenous does a fine job of living up to its stated mission, which is to purvey “carefully sourced local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients” in imaginative, beautifully executed dishes created by chef Steve Phelps. It’s that decidedly local angle that confers official this-is-Sarasota status on the newcomer.
The setting is a delight; and the fare, which changes regularly according to what is freshest and best from local and other eco-friendly sources, lives up to the build-up. We recently wolfed down Parmesan beignets plated on orange blossom honey and scented with thyme followed by skirt steak sliced and served on smoked tomatillos and home fries generously flavored with roasted shallots and sprinkled with tiny local yellow heirloom tomatoes. Chef Phelps, who also excels at fish preps and regularly offers a vegetarian entrée, clearly knows exactly what he is doing. The wine list is a real pleasure, too.
239 S. Links Ave., Sarasota
Reservations suggested: (941) 706-4740
Hours: dinner from 5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; lunch hours TBA
Entrées: $10 to $30
Also downtown, on Burns Court in the Burns Square District, a polished and insanely popular take on Old Florida style and cooking called Owen’s Fish Camp reposes in the quiet shade of a monumental banyan tree. You need to know first that the building housing this charming throwback (there’s outdoor seating, too) really was a fish camp for Sarasota pioneer Owen Burns and dates to 1923. The next thing to know is that you eat and drink very well here at very good prices in an oh-so-clever homage to the city’s Southern roots.
I’ve liked everything I’ve tried at Owen’s, but I have to mention a handful of standouts. A big beautiful surprise at first bite were seared sea scallops with braised pork (!) and succotash, an unlikely but winning combination. The fried whole soft shell crab BLT with basil mayo is scrumptious, as are the fish tacos with green sauce and spicy salsa and the smoked fish spread served in a canning jar. Among sides on offer, the “my way or the highway” cheese grits and the spicy (but not too spicy) collard greens are outstanding. And for dessert? No contest! It’s the fried blackberry pie with vanilla ice cream.
You’ll find many other restaurants to love in this food-crazy city. Lucky us, lucky you, bon appétit to us all.
516 Burns Lane, Sarasota
Information: (941) 951-6936
Hours: dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Entrees: $16 to $38
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